MINNEAPOLIS — Anyone wishing to precipitate upon Ricky Rubio’s parade back to the active list need only point out the numbers.
How despite the electrifying point guard’s return from a severely sprained left ankle, the Timberwolves are still 12-42. How even though Rubio spent as much of the off time as he could working on his oft-scrutinized shot, he’s made 37.7 percent of his field-goal attempts since coming back Feb. 2.
That’s not even marginally better than the 36.8 percent clip — one of the worst of any NBA point guard ever — Rubio brought into the 2014-15 season.
But there’s something different when Rubio pulls up and cocks back now. Visible evidence that Rubio’s 42-game, 12-week absence could, in the long run, avail a metamorphoses into the complete point guard he hopes to become.
In his six games post-injury, Rubio’s shot has plenty of arc. It sails on a fundamentally sound trajectory, not flat-lining like it used to. Today, Rubio jumps through his shot, giving it the proper amount of lift.
And most importantly, the look in Rubio’s eyes when he rises for a mid-level jumper or 3-point try oozes confidence.
"There’s probably a checklist of 50 things that you could go through, but for him, it’s mental first," Wolves shooting coach Mike Penberthy told FOXSportsNorth.com. "And then that follows up with just hard work."
It was Penberthy who tutored Rubio for a week this past summer and parlayed their relationship into a full-time position on Flip Saunders’ staff. A few days in California wasn’t nearly enough to "fix" Rubio’s shot, so when he rolled his ankle five games into the regular season, an opportunity arose.
Once Rubio’s walking boot came off — about a month into his recovery — he and Penberthy got back together, during both practice and extra hours. The former Lakers marksman reiterated the lessons imparted during the summer and had a good two months to drill them into place.
Land several inches in front of where you took off. Look at the correct part of the basket. And get extra shots up every single day — so many shots from so many different spots that you know they’re going in when you take them in a game, whether they do or not.
"Yeah, I wanted (the extended time with Rubio)," Penberthy said. "I want it with all the players, because I know from my own life, you can become a better shooter just by working. I’m not surprised by Ricky’s results.
"But . . . it’s not like he’s going to all of a sudden be an incredible shooter."
Indeed, Penberthy isn’t a one-time shot surgeon. He’s a therapist who meets regularly with any Wolves player who wants to work on his jumper.
Rubio just so happened to have a lot of extra time thanks to his bum ankle. And, as Penberthy said, an attacking mindset when it comes to preparation, whether it’s shooting off one foot while the other heals, badgering assistant coach Ryan Saunders for an extra film session before games or heading straight to the practice facility to work with his personal trainer after them.
Throughout the rehabilitation process, Saunders had to keep his prized point guard in check.
"We still had to watch him," Saunders said. "We had to keep him off his feet sometimes. . . . Even when you’re shooting, you’re jumping off the ground, you’re flexing your ankle. That’s still putting pressure on it. We basically put a limit on his on-court time — whether it was shooting or whatever he was doing."
When he watches film with Flip’s son, Rubio can see visual results.
He’s made 7 of 16 3-point attempts, too. But it will take the rest of the season and another offseason at least to truly evaluate whether Rubio’s injury really did pay big-picture dividends.
"I feel like I can shoot, it’s going to go in, so I’m going to keep shooting," said Rubio, averaging 11.8 points, 7.0 assists and 2.0 steals since his return. "But at the same time, I’m the point guard. I have to create plays for my teammates, so I’ve got to look for the balance."
That’s fine with Saunders, whose offense is much more point-guard-oriented than anything else Rubio’s run during his four NBA seasons. Former coach Rick Adelman ran a lot of corner action with Rubio setting screens and playing off the ball, but Saunders’ more up-tempo scheme is all about the floor general and his ability to draw defenders, facilitate and finish.
That means Rubio can’t fall back on his pass-first tendencies all the time.
"I told him that ‘I want you to shoot it. I don’t care if you miss it,’" Saunders said."’ You’ve got to shoot it just so (defenders will) honor you. And I know you’ll make shots.’"
Said Penberthy: "I’m telling him, ‘You’ve got to take them.’ We do all this work, you can’t go out and play 40 minutes and take two shots. You’ve got to take at least 10 shots, so we can at least evaluate."
That’s fine with Rubio.
"If it feels good," he said, "I’m going to let it fly."